Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Charred Meyer Lemon Chutney with Chef Pablo Ibarra

Virtually every talented chef has their version of a Dr. Watson, Sancho Panza, and Alice B. Toklas at their side. It's usually the chef de cuisine or sous chef. At San Diego's Terra, over in the College area, chef/owner Jeff Rossman mentors and has come to rely on 23-year-old sous chef Pablo Ibarra, who has worked at Terra for three years, starting out in the pantry.

Pablo Ibarra (l) and Jeff Rossman (r)
A native San Diegan, Ibarra comes honestly to professional cooking. His dad is a longtime corporate chef. And, he says, his mom is a very good home cook of traditional Mexican dishes. Ibarra was quick to then say that he isn't into cooking Mexican food, preferring a more global, gourmet approach in the kitchen. His ambition took him to National Culinary School, from which he graduated four years ago. And he was among a dozen young San Diego chefs awarded a scholarship in 2012 from the Chef Celebration Scholarship Foundation to go to the Culinary Institute of America's Greystone campus in Napa for a week to attend special intensive courses.

"It was an amazing experience," he recalls. "I visited farms, learned sous vide techniques, some molecular gastronomy techniques, and concentrated on sauces." Ibarra is now experimenting with gastriques, a syrupy reduction of caramelized sugar and vinegar to which he's bringing in other flavors like mango and honey.

The afternoon I visited with Ibarra at Terra, the lunch service was winding down and he was concentrating on writing the evening's specials menu. Ibarra is big on seafood, especially fish, which was apparent in his list of dishes: dill salmon mouse, coriander seared albacore, golden sea bass with a porcini crust, and white sea bass marinated in lemongrass. What caught my eye as he showed me his handwritten notes was the planned accompaniment to the albacore, charred Meyer lemon chutney. I'm a fool for Meyer lemons, and have two dwarf trees in my garden that are heavily producing right now. When Ibarra saw my eyes light up at the chutney, he said that we could make a batch together.

One caveat--Ibarra had already made the chutney for the evening using Meyer lemons Rossman had brought in from his garden; and he had used them all. But there were still conventional Eureka lemons in the pantry. So, he tossed me a white apron, took me into the large, bustling kitchen where cooks were prepping for the evening service, and we got started.

The recipe calls for just half a dozen or so ingredients. Ibarra pulled out minced shallots, sliced green onions, some sugar and salt. He neatly cut a couple of Eureka lemons into quarter-inch slices, held each slice up to the light to track down seeds, then used fork tines to pop them out.


With that task done we headed over to the burners, passing a massive bubbling stockpot brimming with large red lobster shells and dill before we found a couple of free burners. Ibarra pulled out two beat up sauté pans, one for charring the lemons, the other for sautéing the shallots, and poured a bit of canola oil into each before firing up the burners. Once the pans got good and hot I tossed the lemon slices into one and flames shot up. Cool! Ibarra had me tossing the lemons around to get both sides blackened and sizzling while he worked the shallots, and then added the now beautifully caramelized little pieces to the charred lemons.


Then came the sugar and salt--and because we were working with Eureka's, he added a little extra lemon juice and sugar that the sweet juicy Meyers would have provided. (I can also imagine adding some chopped, sautéed chiles for heat.)


Just before removing the mixture from the heat, he tossed in the green onions. The chutney was almost done, but there was one task left: chopping up the rings of lemons. Here, you can see they're still fairly firm, but Meyer lemons would collapse. In this case you might choose leave them alone. At the restaurant, for presentation's sake, Ibarra told me even those peels get chopped.

Both versions of the chutney are terrific, yet as you'd expect, quite different. The Meyer lemon version is sweet and tart and a bit mellow, reflecting the lemon variety's thin skin and sweet juice. The Eureka lemon version has a surprisingly marvelous bitterness to it--not unlike marmalade--thanks to its thick harsh-tasting skin. I'd make either and serve it with fish--sea bass, halibut, grouper, or other meaty white fish--or pork tenderloin, or chicken. In fact, I did take some home and enjoyed it with biscotti-crusted grouper on a bed of brown basmati rice with lentils.


So, here's the recipe:

Pablo Ibarra's Charred Meyer Lemon Chutney
(printable recipe)

2 Meyer lemons, sliced into 1/4-inch rounds, seeded
2 shallots, minced
2 tablespoons green onions, sliced
1 tablespoon sugar
salt to taste
(whole grain mustard)
Canola oil

1. Add oil to sauté pan (not nonstick) and heat to high temperature. Carefully add lemon slices and cook on both sides until browned.
2. Sauté shallots in a second pan until caramelized. Add to lemons, along with sugar and salt. Once the mixture begins to turn soft, add the green onions.
3. Remove from heat and chop the lemon peels. If you want to add a little spice or boldness, you can add a teaspoon or so of whole grain mustard.

Serve with tuna, any kind of firm white fish, pork tenderloin, or chicken (or spread on toast).


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